Skip to main content

Today's Family Magazine

The origin and significance of beloved Christmas symbols

By Jan Pierce

Not too long after leaves begin to turn color in the fall, our thoughts turn to the holidays.  We love our community and family holiday traditions and enjoy the special events that busy up our schedules this time of year.

Granted, many of us will be celebrating at home in smaller groups this year.  Still, we’ll soak in the love and good will that the season brings. 

One of the ways we get into the spirit of Christmas is enjoying the many symbols that grace our decorations during the Christmas season.  Have you ever wondered about the origins of some of these familiar symbols and shapes? 

Many of our current Christmas traditions and symbols were borrowed over time from pre-Christian celebrations.  They originated most often in Europe and were associated with feasts, harvest celebrations and beliefs related to overcoming evil in many forms. 

Christmas tree
Long before the birth of Jesus, evergreen trees were used as an antidote to evil spirits and disease.  Our modern day Christmas tree tradition began in Germany where families constructed wooden pyramids and decorated them with branches of evergreen.  Martin Luther is credited with introducing the decoration of these trees using candles which represented stars in winter.  In 1841 Prince Albert and Queen Victoria decorated the first true Christmas tree using candles, gingerbread, sweets and fruits.

Holly is another plant thought in ancient times to protect against all kinds of evil, including destructive storms.  Many stories have been told about this shiny green plant with thorny leaves and bright, red berries.  For example, some believe a sprig of holly tied to the bedpost will bring sweet dreams.  In Rome the plant was used to honor Saturn during the Saturnalia Festival.  Later, Christians used it to protect against persecution and finally it has become a beautiful part of our Christmas celebrations.

Candy canes
Christmas candy canes also originated in Germany.  According to folklore, a minister provided white straight sticks of sugar to children to enable them to sit through the service quietly.  Later the sticks were made into a J shape to represent a shepherd’s crook.  In the 1900s the red stripes were added: white for purity and red for the blood of Jesus. Peppermint was said to represent the hyssop which was used in ancient times for purification.

Bells have been used throughout history to communicate important messages to the people.  They call them to gather for pronouncements, worship services and celebrations of all kinds.  On a broader level they invite mankind to worship God.

Christmas star
The familiar shape of the Christmas star represents the star of Bethlehem which guided the three kings (wise men) to find the baby Jesus.  It represents fulfillment and hope.

The term angel literally means messenger.  Thus, the angel symbol represents the angel who spoke words of encouragement to Mary when she found herself with child and to Joseph to tell him the child was of God.  It also represents the host of angels proclaiming Jesus’s birth.  Contrary to popular thought, biblical angels are represented as strong, masculine figures with great power and authority.

Nativity scene
The Christmas creche (nativity scene) is a much-loved symbol of the Christmas season.  Tradition tells us that St. Francis of Assisi created the first crèche in 1223 when he created a living nativity scene in a cave near the town of Grecio, Italy.  Using a live ox and donkey he depicted the birth of Christ during a Christmas Eve Mass.  Such scenes depicting stories from the Bible were popular during those times as regular Catholic services were conducted only in Latin. 

Today the crèche is a depiction of Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus who was born in a manger among the animals as there was no room for the couple in local inns.

Wreaths are another beautiful Christmas tradition.  Lovely, green Christmas wreaths are circular, representing a never-ending symbol of love and rebirth.  At Christmas time it symbolizes generosity and gathering together with loved ones.

The tradition of hanging stockings comes from a Dutch legend.  A poor man had three daughters and not enough money to provide them wedding dowries.  St. Nicholas dropped a bag of coins down the man’s chimney and some fell into stockings drying by the fire.  The man’s worries were over and now we hang stockings on our mantels hoping for small gifts.

Christmas music
The Christmas season wouldn’t be complete without all the various kinds of music written just for this time of year.  Music associated with Christmas has its earliest origins in 4th century Rome where Latin hymns were written.  These were most likely in the form of chants. In the 1200s, St. Francis of Assisi was responsible for introducing Christmas songs in regional native languages.  The first Christmas carols appeared in English in 1426 when a chaplain named John Awdlay listed 25 Caroles of Cristemas which were most likely sung by “wassailers” as they traveled house to house singing and toasting good health to the inhabitants.

In the 1500s we find carols still sung today including The Twelve Days of Christmas, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and O Christmas Tree.

Classical Christmas music is also a special treasure of the holiday season.  Major classical works include Bach’s Christmas Oratorio written in 1734, Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker written in 1892 and Handel’s Messiah, written in 1741.  The Messiah was originally intended for performance at Easter, but is now a beloved Christmas offering.

May the symbols of Christmas bring great joy to you and yours this holiday season.